Life Remembered: Nugent changed 'paradigm of disability'

Life Remembered: Nugent changed 'paradigm of disability'

Tim Nugent, who came back from World War II to devote his life to disabled veterans and wheelchair athletics, died on Veterans Day.

Curb cuts and other accessibility efforts that are common everywhere stemmed from his work, and wheelchair sports blossomed at the University of Illinois, with champions like Jean Driscoll, the eight-time winner of the Boston Marathon.

He founded the National Wheelchair Basketball Association in 1949 and served as its commissioner more than 20 years. Nugent Hall at the UI is named for him.

Mr. Nugent, 92, created what became the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services at the University of Illinois in 1948 when he was only 24, after graduate school at the University of Wisconsin.

World War II had only recently ended, and disabled veterans sought to use their GI Bill benefits.

He started a rehabilitation pilot program at the university's former Galesburg campus. When that closed, Mr. Nugent refused to take no for an answer.

Brad Hedrick, who came to the UI for his doctoral studies expressly because of Mr. Nugent, and eventually succeeded him as director at the Division of Disability Resources, tells the story of how the division was founded when the Galesburg effort closed.

"At that point, Tim and the (Galesburg) students wrote over 300 universities to get one to host the program. They got unanimous denials, including Illinois," Hedrick said.

"To their credit, the service men and women were certainly a resilient group and Tim was the epitome of resilience.

"They took a caravan to Springfield. Ultimately, the vision of these injured war vets in wheelchairs outside the Capitol left quite an impression. The governor and the president of the UI agreed that campus would be host to the program."

Hedrick said that only Mr. Nugent could have achieved what he did.

"Tim was the perfect man at the perfect time to change forever the social, political and economic paradigm of disability," Hedrick said.

Mr. Nugent built ramps for UI buildings and homes in his own garage, and got up early to drive disabled vets to class in those early days, Hedrick said.

"Tim operated five or six years without a budget," he added, choking up. "He was just everything to the program."

He retired in 1985.

In an earlier interview, marathon champion Driscoll said Mr. Nugent would often cheer on the athletes at wheelchair basketball games and track competitions.

"You couldn't find a bigger fan than Tim Nugent," she said.

Dave Shaul, co-chair of the Tom Jones Challenger League Baseball, spoke to Mr. Nugent in the last couple of weeks at the disABILITY Resource Expo in Champaign.

"You look at the university and all the significant developments in rehabilitation, and Tim was instrumental in all of that," Shaul said.

"He said, 'use your ability, not your disability.' And he saw how sports would help the veterans adjust to life after the war."

A. Mark Neuman of Champaign, who advocated for an effort to award Mr. Nugent a Congressional Gold Medal, said his friend changed the world.

"When you think of curb cuts, wheelchair ramps and wheelchair-accessible buses, features in our society that thankfully are now commonplace, remember that it was Tim Nugent who was the leader and innovator in creating them," Neuman said.

"Tim Nugent did more than anyone to show the rest of us how easy and rewarding it would be to make it possible for people with disabilities to live independently and overcome limitations."

Neuman called Mr. Nugent an example for all of us.

"Not to judge, but to help," he said. "To give a hand-up, not a hand-out. Tim knew that central to human dignity was allowing each person to contribute to society. Tim understood that most people would rather give than take. That was a big idea."

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